That Pakistan is ‘hedging’ is now official. It has been resisting both pressures and incentives to ‘do more’ in the war on terror. Observers with empathy realize it has little choice. The Pakistan Army cannot clean up the sanctuary the Taliban have in Pakistan without risking stability of the state. Therefore, the demand of the Pakistanis has been toned down. They are no longer required to go after the Taliban but only to ‘cut off’ support.
The logic is that without Pakistani support the Taliban would whither away to levels at which the ANSF, built into a credible force over time, would be in control. With the surge at its culmination point, the ISAF is busying itself with eliminating the tactical level Taliban leadership. The CIA is doing the same with higher leadership on the Pakistan side through drone attacks. The ISAF would hand over areas to the ANSF progressively beginning next January. By 2014 the process of handing over is expected to be complete. The whittled down Taliban would then be countered where necessary with support of US-NATO troops, staying on longer for the purpose.
The idea is apparently workable. It would enable the US and the NATO to disengage and draw down. It draws on the Iraq model. It is predicated on the Pakistanis ending support to the Taliban and the ANSF raising its standards to levels enough to take on the prospective continuance of the Taliban in a lowered intensity of insurgency. What are the prospects out to 2014?
Pakistan has had the Kerry-Lugar bill cater for long term civilian programs. The military is to separately have another $2 billion injection. This is to ensure compliance. Since the revised demands do not require the military to ‘take on’ the Taliban, the Army could prove responsive. Unable to risk a civil war along ethnic or ideological lines, by cleaning up the Taliban from its side of the border, it would instead prefer a less demanding role.
The assumption appears to be that the Taliban are a product of Pakistani state support. They have instead been autonomous players and would have catered for such turning off of support. Their sources of finances are drugs, charities from the Arab world and opponents of regimes there. Pakistani action to cut them off from such sources and limit their autonomy, such as by interdicting them on the border, can only be expected to draw violence. This would place Pakistan once again later in an impossible situation of taking them on or backing off. The demands on Pakistan that currently appear reasonable – of stopping support – can only increase when such stoppage is seen to be producing little result.
Training the ANSF for levels of operations of low-grade counter insurgency is possible. The training is underway through an extensive program including combat unit’s mentoring of Afghan units. Yet, it would appear an ambitious program.
Turning out a functioning Army fit for counter insurgency is optimistic in the tight time frame. The experience of the Rashtriya Rifles is an example from India in which it took about half-a-decade for the force to really become effective and potent against lower levels of insurgency obtaining in Kashmir. The argument for training support to the ANSF ignores the language barrier that first needs to be overcome. And the fact that counter insurgents, operating as part of organized forces, require higher levels of training than insurgent fighters, relying on their innate instincts, martial culture and local resources.
Assuming, nevertheless, that is would succeed, what does this imply for Afghanistan and the region? Firstly, the insurgency would continue. Neither would the Taliban be a push over, nor the ANSF capable. While it may permit the foreign forces to leave, being an ‘Afghan on Afghan’ strategy in the best tradition of ‘divide and rule’, it would be no solution for the Afghan people. Secondly, before long it can be expected that the regional powers would be supporting their proxies, vitiating regional security. Thirdly, more should be expected by way of ‘solution’ for the resources expended in by others and costs incurred by Afghan people.
What should the West, likely to get tired of killing prior to the Taliban tired of being killed, do? Obama’s AfPak review is due in December, the third of his tenure. Being the political prong, it is a legitimate prong of strategy, as yet untried with any level of conviction. With the US weight behind it, its desultory course so far can be changed decisively. The military prong is beyond the culminating point. He has little alternative but to progress the peace prong of strategy by appointing a special interlocutor or redrafting Richard Holbrooke’s terms of reference.
The questions that need answer are: Can the Taliban be moderated by engagement? What extent is their extremism a product of the war? How much is their image a result of information war? To what extent would they retain links to the Al Qaeda? How accommodative will they be of their opponents? Answers to these reflexively negate the notion of talks. However, talks can prove a game-changer. Taliban can reconstruct itself as a strategic actor as the talks progress. Afghans deserve that the talks option be chanced.